Let’s get out thing straight right away. Will Smith brings a tremendously watchable performance in Ali, but he looks nothing like the man physically or even dynamically. Sure, both the actor and the boxer (who met several times during production) are charismatic and passionate about their professions. But, while not a mole, Smith is not the vocally aggressive cultural warrior that Ali was in his prime. Maybe that was then and this is now, but Michael Mann’s primary concern in Ali was to put the heavyweight champion in the socio-political context of the mid-60s. Unfortunately, Smith’s Ali is more in line with the softened image of the fighter created in recent years than the controversial figure the man really was. This image has no doubt been helped in no small measure by Ali’s decaying health, turning him from a fierce radical to everyone’s lovable gruff grandpa.
Judging solely by Michael Mann’s Ali, we would know little of the man’s dexterity with words, or that Muhammad Ali was among the first to cross celebrity status with politics, or his inestimable influence in the Black Power movement. Muhammad Ali exemplified the 60s in a way that Ali doesn’t seem to get. Ironically, it is both Will Smith’s performance and Michael Mann’s direction, regardless of how misguided they both are, that make Ali entertaining enough if not particularly memorable.
Michael Mann directs with fire (except for Public Enemies, but we won’t go there) and his opening here is fantastic; probably the best thing in the film. It is a kaleidoscope view of Ali’s era and how the times shaped the man. There are at least a few brief snatches of authentic air depicting the rise in African-American pride and esteem. These first moments are also a window into a time when boxing was one of the most popular sports in America.
Ali is at its best when it focuses on the cultural mind-set and its adoption by Muhammad Ali. When the film does do this, it actually succeeds better than most and is an untainted triumph. Commendably, Mann touches upon Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) and his understanding of the leader is as good as Spike Lee’s in many ways. Equally as impressive is the way the film covers the clash of values Ali encountered even among older African-Americans like his father (Giancarlo Esposito), who objects to him changing his family name.
It’s obvious that Mann realized the strength of such elements. This is made evident by what becomes the most touching scene in the film, occurring when Ali travels to Zaire and realizes the hope his legacy has brought to transnational Black pride. It is all the less comprehensible, then, why Mann offers so little of this insight in favor of time in the ring. As well filmed as the fights are, they go on too long (the first one alone is almost twenty minutes). So long are the fights that the climatic Rumble in the Jungle comes off as just another elongated spectacle rather than an arrived at finale.
At other times, Ali is distractingly gimmicky, with too many musical interludes and an overuse of cross-cutting. The film moves in jolts and so do its moods. Ali finds some bliss with Sonji (Jada Pinkett-Smith), the cocktail waitress who would becomes his wife. This leads to tension within the Nation of Islam (the film doesn’t even peer into why Ali was drawn to the organization); she is not a Muslim. But Ali’s most powerful enemy was the FBI and the film handles this conflict entertainingly but shallowly.
Perhaps, Ali was not conceived the right way. It starts after the fighter’s formative years and consequently misses out on much about the man and what shaped a 20th-century icon.
On a rudimentary level we should be thankful for Will Smith’s performance, even though it is a considerable indicator of what is wrong with the film. Smith is an interesting personality and he creates a character that is not Muhammad Ali, but is lively nonetheless. But there is still a problem that not even Will Smith can overcome. With the exception of a few moments of tenderness with his wives, the role is written on a one-note scale. We see nothing but glimpses of any other side apart from Ali’s ferocity. Sure, it’s fun to see Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) jibing each other, but the complexity of their relationship is beyond the scope of the film.
Ali meanders along without a clear destination. If it is worth seeing it is for Will Smith’s performance which is, as always, engaging. Together with Smith, Michael Mann saves the day. Even his lesser films are, at worst, honorable failures and at least Ali makes us care enough to ask what the real point of the film was.